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40 Years Later, Oregon Trail Winds Way To Facebook

GUY RAZ, host:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Oregon Trail - not the historic path of Western expansion, but perhaps the most popular educational computer game of all time.

(Soundbite of video game, "Oregon Trail")

RAZ: Ah, yes. Fording the river, changing a broken wagon wheel, dying of dysentery - happy memories for millions of schoolchildren who since 1971, have spent hours pretending to set off on that 2,000-mile-long journey in the year 1848.

(Soundbite of video game, "Oregon Trail")

Unidentified Man: Well, are you ready? Come on. Let's go.

RAZ: The game is now on the iPhone. And next week, another version is set to launch on Facebook.

Now, the story of how Oregon Trail was created begins in 1971. Don Rawitsch was teaching junior high in Minneapolis, and he was having trouble getting his students interested in U.S. history. So with help from his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, they invented a basic computer program where kids could pick characters, and then trace the Oregon Trail.

And Rawitsch first tested it on those same students, on the school's only teletype machine.

Mr. DON RAWITSCH (Creator, "Oregon Trail"): It was like the size of an IBM Selectric typewriter, let's say, but on a big pedestal.

RAZ: And there was no screen, we should say.

Mr. RAWITSCH: No screen.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. RAWITSCH: It was all handled by text printing out on paper.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. RAWITSCH: So that had to be wheeled up, put next to the classroom phone I had. And in those days, you connected a computer to a phone line by taking the handset of the phone and kind of slamming it into a box...

RAZ: Right.

Mr. RAWITSCH: ...that had cups on it. And so that's how we made the connection.

I had the kids divide up into small groups so that they could try running the program, and rotated them through. While one group was on the computer, the other groups were doing other things to prepare.

RAZ: How did the kids respond to it? Was it a hit right away?

Mr. RAWITSCH: Well, they certainly were excited. They probably didn't get to use the computer that often in school, and here was a chance. And it was something different than the textbook. And it was an opportunity for them to make their own decisions and try to solve a real problem.

RAZ: We're going to jump forward now 40 years - because of the history of what happened with Oregon Trail is too complex to go into detail here. But essentially, this game became an enormous hit, still played by kids all over the United States. Some 65 million copies of this game have been sold worldwide. Did you ever imagine it would be this huge?

Mr. RAWITSCH: No, no. Not at all. There wasn't really a consumer market for software in those days because we didn't even have personal computers yet. So I think we were more taken by the fact that we could actually figure out a way to program the computer to do these things, and that was kind of a victory enough.

RAZ: Well, Don, I can tell you, I loved playing the game as a kid. And I will make sure that when my kid is old enough to play a computer, I will have him play the latest version of Oregon Trail. This is a game where, you know, kids -and some adults - learn about history and geography, economics and so on. I wonder what lessons you have learned from making this game.

Mr. RAWITSCH: Well, as I've studied about the Oregon Trail and helped to create the game, I came away with four lessons that I think are pretty valuable in life. Number one, plan ahead; there's danger out there. Number two, be patient; the journey is long. Number three, if you persevere you'll find your green valley. And number four, even if the water is deep, sometimes you just have to caulk your wagon and head out from shore.

RAZ: And number five, you end up in Oregon if it all works out - which isn't a bad place to be.

Mr. RAWITSCH: Very cool.

RAZ: That's Don Rawitsch. He's one of the creators of the original "Oregon Trail" computer game. It celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. He joined us from his home in Evanston, Illinois.

Don, thank you so much.

Mr. RAWITSCH: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.